Baltimore Ravens defense: Pass rush isn’t everything

BALTIMORE, MD - NOVEMBER 03: Marcus Peters #24 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates with Brandon Williams #98 during the first half against the New England Patriots at M&T Bank Stadium on November 3, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - NOVEMBER 03: Marcus Peters #24 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates with Brandon Williams #98 during the first half against the New England Patriots at M&T Bank Stadium on November 3, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images) /

The Baltimore Ravens don’t need to zone in on just their pass rush. A good run defense and an elite secondary could give Don Martindale what he needs to make this defense dominant.

There was a stretch during the 2019 season — weeks 2 through 6, to be precise — when the Baltimore Ravens’ obvious lack of a pass-rush was threatening my mental and emotional well-being.

From Kyler Murray bouncing around the pocket for what seemed like days to Patrick Mahomes hitting open receivers downfield to Baker Mayfield finding the time to feed Jarvis Landry at will, my blood pressure escalated while my hair line ran away. It was at the frustration over the Ravens inability to make life even remotely difficult for opposing quarterbacks. My goodness, Duck Hodges gave off the impression of a professional football quarterback, and Andy Dalton kept hitting Auden Tate to the tune of 91 yards.

Then Marcus Peters came to town. Then things changed.

Peters moved into the lineup right away and recorded a pick-six in his debut against Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks. Jimmy Smith returned from injury and Marlon Humphrey took his talents inside to erase slot receivers. Suddenly, with quarterbacks not seeing receivers jump open right off the snap, and having to pat that ball one or two extra beats, defenders started getting in their faces. It wasn’t exactly a sack explosion for the Ravens, but they harassed quarterbacks who couldn’t find open guys, and the entire defense’s fortunes changed.

Well, except one tiny part. That run defense never did get quite right, did it? Brandon Williams, to my eye, had his best season in years, and Michael Pierce certainly had some moments, but it felt strange watching opponents find success running against the Ravens. They ran particularly right at the edges and up the gut. Sure, that departure of C.J. Mosley certainly had an impact, but there was more than just that, right?

The Ravens also lost Brent Urban, an unsung hero at setting an edge, as well as Terrell Suggs, arguably one of the best edge-setters in NFL history. There has been a slow drain of those type of players over recent years, and we watched teams run against the defense with a little more ease than we’re used to in these parts. The 49ers, Bills and Seahawks all had some moments of dominance in the run game, and Nick Chubb absolutely destroyed the Ravens (albeit before those important mid-season additions arrived) in Week 4.

And… well… Derrick Henry. He had 30 carries for 195 yards against the Ravens in the Divisional Round, ending the dream season all too quickly and bruising a legacy of superior run defense in Baltimore in the process.

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So, here’s my call for more beef in the front seven, as opposed to the more commonly-held belief that the Ravens need quick, twitchy edge-rushers to pump up their championship odds.

I base this on a few basic premises: First, the Ravens have a pass defense capable of providing opposing quarterbacks very small windows, and usually not even giving that right off the bat. Second, the Ravens have, and this is weird for me to even write, an explosive and efficient offense. Allowing other teams to hold the ball and keep it away from Lamar Jackson for chunks at a time is not a good thing. And, third, I personally get flustered watching teams run against the Ravens’ defense with impunity.

There are a few players in this year’s draft that I believe can help the Ravens right off the bat. Well, there are more than a few, but I don’t see Chase Young or Derrick Brown or even Javon Kinlaw falling far enough for the Ravens to even try to make a move to trade up for them. Who I think might be in the range, and could contribute as rookies for a championship-contending team, are A.J. Epenesa in the first round and linebacker Malik Harrison in the second.

Epenesa comes with a power-rush from the edge that the Ravens tend to like, and I believe he can shut one side of the line down as far as the run game. Harrison can add some youth and aggression to the inside linebacker group with Chris Board and L.J. Fort, and I would not be opposed at all to the team bringing back Josh Bynes.

The hope, obviously, is Tyus Bowser continues to show growth this year after the best season of his young career.  Jaylon Ferguson showed some flashes as a rookie, seemingly improving by the week. I’d still like the team to bring back Matt Judon, but more so on a real contract that doesn’t wipe out half the team’s available cap space, as would be the case on the franchise tag. If Judon left, I’d consider one of the higher-paid free agents, but maybe the team could be encouraged to spend that money on the inside instead?

How about impending Steelers free agent, defensive tackle, Javon Hargrave? He’s played in 63 out of 64 games in his young career, and picked up 10.5 sacks over the past two seasons. Andrew Billings from Cincinnati might also be a target in free agency, and, while he’s not a penetration player, he is stout and adept at occupying blockers — that’s an important skill in a “Wink” Martindale defense that likes to open up gaps for blitzing linebackers and defensive backs.

Look, getting a defense filled with pass-rushers would be fantastic, particularly for a team that has a good offense and should be able to do quarterback-hunting in a lot of games after getting big leads. But those guys aren’t always easy to obtain, especially for teams relatively tight against the cap and with their picks in the back of the rounds in the draft.

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The Ravens can cover. They can add resources more easily to fix the run defense. And they have Martindale, a blitz maestro. That could be enough. With a salary cap, you have to pick where to spend. The Ravens have gone with the defensive backs. In a few years, they’ll have to come up with a big check for the quarterback. They have to pick their battles wisely.